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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Stiffelio - opera in three acts (1849).
Stiffelio, A Protestant minister of the Gospel – José Carreras (tenor); Lina, Stiffelio’s wife, caught in adultery – Catherine Malfitano (soprano); Stankar, an elderly officer and Lina’s father – Gregory Yurisich (baritone); Jorg, an elderly minister – Gwynne Howell (bass); Raffaele, a nobleman and seducer of Lina – Robin Leggate (tenor); Dorotea, Lina’s cousin – Adele Paxton (mezzo)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera, Covent Garden/Edward Downes
Stage director: Elijah Moshinsky; Set design: Michael Yeargan; Costume design: Peter J Hall.
rec. Covent Garden 2, 6 February 1993.
Video director: Brian Large
Double Layer disc; Picture format: NTSC in PAL format 4:3; Audio formats: PCM Stereo.
Menu language: English. Sung in Italian (original language) with English subtitles
OPUS ARTE (ROYAL OPERA HOUSE COLLECTION) OAR3103D [122:00]
Experience Classicsonline

This recording was previously available, albeit poorly advertised, on the Pioneer Label alongside other performances from Covent Garden in the 1990s. It re-appears in standard packaging at mid-price among the first fruits of the purchase of Opus Arte by the Royal Opera House. The artwork of the packaging is striking whilst the accompanying pamphlet gives only the production, cast, chapter details and a synopsis of the plot in English. In the case of this production I think there should have been more background as it constituted the first staging in a major theatre in modern times of a long lost Verdi opera. I recount the circumstances before considering the performance.
 
Following the premiere of Luisa Miller in Naples in 1850 the years that Verdi called his anni di galleri (years in the galleys) could finally be seen to be over. Despite having cursed the pressures of his compositional life and the psychosomatic sore throats and stomach pains it induced, Verdi still, from time to time, put himself under pressure by leaving too little time to become familiar with the characters of the libretto plot and also compose the music. Verdi’s actual contracted commitments were two. The first was an opera for Ricordi, his publisher. This was to be given in the autumn of 1850 in any Italian theatre of the publishers choosing, except, at Verdi’s continued insistence, Milan’s La Scala. The second was for an opera for La Fenice in Venice. With time pressing for the Ricordi commission Verdi proposed four subjects to his compliant librettist Piave, including Le Roi s’amuse, the basis of the later Rigoletto. Piave countered with a list including Stiffelius, based on a French play. The story concerns a minister of a Protestant sect whose wife commits adultery in her husband’s absence and who forgives her from the pulpit after choosing an apposite reading from the Bible. It is a melodramatic story packed with human emotions and inter-relationships as well as dramatic situations. Given Verdi’s success with the intimate relationships involved in his two previous operas, La battaglia di Legnano and Luisa Miller, the composer felt confident about his capacity to deal with the story. La Traviata and Stiffelio are the only operas that Verdi composed on contemporary subjects.
 
Piave quickly produced the libretto of Stiffelio, Verdi’s sixteenth opera and the composer spent the summer months of 1850 on the work. The two travelled to Trieste, the venue chosen by Ricordi for the premiere. They hit big opposition from the Catholic Church who not only objected to the concept of a priest being a married man, but also that the congregation were represented kneeling in prayer! Further, Stiffelio’s quotation from The Sermon on the Mount, as he publicly forgives his wife Lina her adultery was forbidden, as was her earlier address to her husband when she appeals Ministro, ministro confessateri (Minister, minister, hear my confession). Verdi considered that the changes demanded would emasculate the dramatic impact of the whole plot. He agreed to compromises with the censors as long as the dramatic situation and the thrust of his music was not affected. In other circumstances and where compromise was not possible, as with Un Ballo in Maschera, he might have packed his bags and took his opera elsewhere. With Stiffelio having been placed by Ricordi in Trieste this was not open to him, despite his frustration and near incandescent anger at the necessary revisions. The premiere on 16 November 1850 was well received with press comments such as tender melodies follow one another in a most attractive manner. All the performances in Trieste were sold out with the church scene omitted in at least three of them. In other Italian cities Stiffelio was re-titled Guglielmo Wellingrode, its principal character no longer a 19th century protestant pastor, but the Prime Minister of a German principality in the early 15th century! As the Verdi scholar Julian Budden notes (Verdi, Master Musicians Series, Dent. 1984) the composer was used to having certain subjects rejected by the censors and seeing his works bowdlerised, particularly when revived in Naples and the Papal States. This was the first time, however, that he had suffered the mutilation of a work at its premiere. He determined that he would find a way of making it censor-proof. He first withdrew the work and in 1856, with Piave altering the locale and period and with significant modifications and additions to the music, it became the revised opera Aroldo, premiered at the Teatro Nuovo, Rimini on 16 August 1857.
 
As was Verdi’s habit when revising a scene or aria in an opera, he removed the revised or replaced pages from the manuscript autograph. To all intents and purposes, Stiffelio ceased to exist in a performing version complete with orchestration, although vocal scores were available. In the late 1960s orchestral parts for both Stiffelio and its bowdlerised version Guglielmo Wellingrode came to light in the Naples Conservatory. As a consequence an integral performance of Stiffelio became possible after one hundred and fifteen years. This took place in the performing edition by Rubin Profeta in Parma on 26 December 1968 conducted by Peter Maag. An even better version of what Verdi wrote is the basis of the 1979 Philips recording, part of their early Verdi series under Lamberto Gardelli (422-432-2). As well as Carreras the recording features Sylvia Sass as the adulterous wife in one of her rare assumptions on a mainstream label. An alternative live audio performance from Trieste in December 2000, featuring Dimitra Theodossiou as Lina and Giorgio Casciarri in the title role is available from Dynamic (CDS 362/1-2).
 
Further work by Edward Downes on secondary vocal sources was the basis for this seminal production staged at Covent Garden in the winter of 1993. Although by the time of the production the Verdi family had given access to autograph sources, Downes could only benefit from vocal parts and was not able to use any of the new orchestral material. This new material was used in a preliminary Critical Edition staged at the Metropolitan Opera, New York the following autumn to mark the twenty fifth anniversary of Placido Domingo’s debut in the house (review). Philip Gossett outlines some details of the preparation of the Critical Edition and its derivation in his book Divas and Scholars, (Chicago 2006. pp 162-63). The University of Chicago Press and Casa Ricordi published the final Critical Edition by Kathleen K Hansell in 2003. With the emergence of the new material, and following on from this Covent Garden production and that at the Met, Stiffelio has been performed at La Scala, Berlin and Los Angeles. The work now takes its rightful place in the middle period Verdi canon.
 
The present production by Elijah Moshinsky in sets by Michael Yeargan and costumes by Peter J Hall is realistic, atmospheric and in period. With the help of this cast of committed actor-singers and Edward Downes in the pit, Moshinsky’s production shows Stiffelio to be the dramatic and musically cohesive work that Verdi knew he had created. The eponymous role requires the tenor to be fully involved dramatically and makes considerable demands on his acting ability as well as his singing. There are times when the emotional pressures on Stiffelio arising from his wife’s infidelity, and his doubts, are reminiscent of those found in Otello. There is no Iago to weave distrust in his mind but actual evidence, not least when Stiffelio notices that his wife is not wearing her wedding ring (CH. 4). Carreras’s body and face portray his involvement throughout the unfolding story and particularly in the dilemmas of Stiffelio’s position as husband and priest. Whilst allowing he is often singing full out and sometimes showing a little vocal spread (CH 9), when Domingo in the rival version has some power to spare, I count this as one of Carreras’s best-recorded assumptions. As his wife, Catherine Malfitano matches him for dramatic involvement and singing. Hers is not as beautiful a voice as that of Sharon Sweet at the Met, but her committed acting more than compensates and as a total portrayal is to be preferred. Good examples can be seen in Lina’s prayer (CH 5) where Malfitano’s expressive singing and phrasing is matched by her facial and body language. As Lina’s implacable father Stankar, who is appalled at her behaviour, the physically imposing Gregory Yurisich towers above his daughter. His demeanour is appropriately stiff as befits an ex-army officer and the character. He sings with good strong tone and feel for a Verdian phrase. Stankar’s dilemma is well represented and portrayed by Yurisich in the father-daughter duet (CH 6) where he melts a little and in the opening of act three as he contemplates suicide as the answer to the dishonour, as he sees it, of Lina’s behaviour (CH 13). In the marked comprimario parts of Stiffelio’s older colleague Jorg and the seducer Raffaele, Gwynne Howell and Robin Leggate, both sing exceptionally well and act convincingly.
 
Within five months of the premiere of Stiffelio, Verdi presented Rigoletto in Venice. There is no flood of arias in Stiffelio as in the successor opera so that the audience would hardly depart with a tune on their lips. Rather the concentration is on the dramatic situation, superbly brought out by this singing cast and Edward Downes in the pit. There are many moments of drama in Stiffelio that bring Verdi’s later operas to mind, not least Otello. The tense final scene inside the church with the words that Verdi actually set to music (CH 16) comes very close. In this performance one is left wondering that whilst Stiffelio the preacher forgives the adulteress, whether the man himself forgives the wife. This final moment is well caught by Brian Large’s expert video direction which is exemplary throughout. The picture quality is good whilst the sound is vivid and forward except for the odd variation as singers turn away from the microphone.
 
Robert J Farr
 

 


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